It was recently proposed that countries with high immigration could specify the ideal mix of people and cultures allowed across their borders. It is a thesis that has, unsurprisingly, split opinion and caused much debate. But whatever one thinks of this approach, the type and volume of immigrants the UK electorate would prefer is a topic well worth exploring, writes Ken Clark.
In his recent book Exodus, Paul Collier argues that countries which host large numbers of immigrants may legitimately ask themselves how diverse a society they think is optimal and use the levers of policy to target this.
The benefits of diversity might include knowledge transfers and complementarities with host country workers but beyond a certain point excessive diversity can diminish trust and the ability to secure co-operative outcomes.
Achieving the optimal mix of peoples and cultures implies a choice of immigration policy: in any period how many, and what kind of, migrants should be allowed to cross the border, or to settle for the longer term?
Collier’s work has variously been described as “humane” and “morally questionable” but whatever one thinks of his overall thesis, the idea of what kind of immigration the UK electorate would like is worth exploring.
Sky News recently polled around 1,500 adults across Great Britain on a variety of topics relating to immigration. The headline results were publicised as part of the channel’s immigration week but a full set of tables was also released via the pollster’s website. The dataset contains some clues about what the British people think about the kinds of immigration that should be encouraged or discouraged.
The chart below displays answers to the question: “For each of the following types of immigrants who are citizens of other countries, please indicate whether you believe they should be given priority over most other immigrant types in deciding who gets to come to work and reside in the UK, should be treated the same as other immigrant types, should be given less priority than most other immigrant types, or should not be allowed to move to the UK at all.”
The respondents were then presented with a list of regions of the world and asked to consider essentially how desirable they saw immigrants from that region.
The gist of the story is really in the height of the blue bars indicating the proportion of respondents who would like to see immigrants from that particular region given priority in entry to the UK.
There is a clear preference for those from the Old Commonwealth countries (e.g. Australia, Canada, New Zealand) followed, not particularly closely, by those from Western Europe and the US.
There’s some indication that, relative to other groups with less clear ties to the UK, Eastern Europeans and New Commonwealth (e.g. India, Pakistan, Nigeria) citizens have some degree of ‘popularity’ although in both cases more than 10% of respondents also preferred to close the borders completely.
The second chart does the same but the respondents are asked about their attitudes to the settlement of different ‘types’ of immigrant largely defined in terms of their position in (or out of) the labour market (although asylum seekers are included and the full survey also asked about wealthy individuals and professional sportspeople).
Skilled professionals (the questionnaire singled out academics and doctors as examples) are the winners and there is a clear preference for skilled manual over unskilled workers.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given attitudes commonly portrayed in the media, there was a reasonable degree of support for asylum seekers: only 15% thought there should be no immigration at all from this category. There was very little enthusiasm for prioritising the applications of those seeking to retire to the UK.
The context here should not be forgotten. On the whole, Britons do not want more immigration: 67% of respondents to Sky’s survey thought the government needed to take “drastic action” to reduce the numbers entering the country.
But forced to answer Collier’s question of ‘What should diversity look like in the UK?’ (to the extent that migration has to happen), people seem to prefer their migrants to look like them ethnically and to have a relatively high level of skills to contribute to the economy.
This accords to some extent with what the academic literature has found in other countries – David Card and his co-authors note that in a sample of individuals from 24 European countries there was a preference for co-ethnic immigrants but also that “education, work skills, linguistic ability and, most importantly, commitment to a country’s way of life are seen as important” (p19).
Some researchers have focused on the potential labour market competition that host country workers might face from immigrants as a driver of attitudes to immigration. Ortega and Polavieja (2011) argue that those in manual occupations face more competition from newcomers and are more likely to be anti-immigrant, a finding that is supported empirically using data from the European Social Survey.
In the Sky News survey, around 30% of workers in social classes C2 (skilled manual) or DE (working class and the non-working) thought that immigration had damaged their job prospects or pay compared to around 20% of those in AB (managerial and professional workers).
While the bulk of the research evidence for the UK suggests that the labour market effects of immigration have been small, to the extent that there have been statistically significant effects, it is indeed the lowest skilled who have suffered the most (Dustmann et al., 2008).
More generally there is a serious disjunction between public perceptions about this issue and what governments or researchers are doing. Despite the limited evidence that immigration – and even the unprecedented wave of A8 migration after 2004 – had any serious consequences for the labour market, many people think that immigration is a threat to the employment and pay of British workers.
Equally, there is a broad academic consensus that migrants are net contributors to the welfare state – and yet opinion surveys reveal that impacts on schools and hospitals are of major concern.
Bobby Duffy shows that there is widespread ignorance of what immigration policies have been enacted: for example, while 76% of people thought that imposing an annual limit on non-EU migration was a good idea, only 34% knew that this is in fact government policy.
This, in Duffy’s words, ‘knowledge vacuum’ raises the following question: if the government somehow does manage to implement the kind of immigration policies that the public say they want, and delivers for the country Collier’s optimal level and mix of immigration, would the electorate even notice?
The need for better communication about this issue on the part of both policymakers and the research community is clear.